Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Thoughts on the 2000th Test

First up here's some newspaper coverage of the first ever Test: 2,000 matches and over 100 years later, and the game doesn't seem to have changed much. One thing that's noticeable from the coverage is the sense of excitement among the followers. As the report states, only a few hundred were there at the start, misinformed about the start time and aggrieved by Allen's withdrawal from the game. For the second day, there were 4,000 present. The eventual success of the competition gave rise to the Ashes.

There was certainly a lot of excitement about this one. The queues stretched for miles, St John's Wood Tube was closed for a time, and I was bloody lucky to get in, thanks to a mate who'd been queuing all morning. We had some nice seats near the front of the Tavern stand. I would say the crowd was about 60/40 per cent Indian/English fans, many of them youngsters thanks to the MCC's fantastic U16s ticketing policy.

Boy, does our attack look good. Broad looks the nastiest - wiry strength, a beautiful run up, a high, explosive action - the man looks built for the purpose of propelling a cricket ball very fast. Tremlett (see below), is quite simply a monster. I didn't see him bowl a half volley all day, and pretty much anything that lands in his half is going to be hard to hit. Anderson looked less threatening from side on, but the accuracy was incredible. And this was one of the first games I've seen him be really effective without really swinging the ball, until he got the new one. The bowling to dismiss Raina - sharp away swing following sharp inswing - was brilliant. At his best I think he's at the forefront of sport - an incredible combination of athleticism and skill. And watching Swann from side on is a great sight - you can see the subtle variations in flight and dip, probably a lot better than the batsman can. 

So I got to see Sachin bat, in the 2000th Test, and.....he faced about 30 balls and struck a single run. He was clearly under the weather. Poor sod. Everyone in the ground - or anyone with any sense, which on the whole cricket followers have - wanted him to get a ton. Many of them, myself included, might have favoured that over an England win. So he didn't make any runs, but the tenets of his technique were clear to see - absolutely, emphatically forward or back in defence to every ball. 

The other thing I found captivating was England's fielding. Pietersen and Morgan, in particular, seemed to have a kind of sixth sense about where the ball would be, beginning their movements almost at the split second ball met bat. England as a whole were an impressive unit - Morgan put one down and quick as a flash there was a fielder running up to him and patting him on the back. Upon taking the final wicket they looked like what they are - a group of friends celebrating together.

As to the result, it never really felt in much doubt. But my God, have the Indians had some bad luck with Khan, Gambhir and Tendulkar. With Khan I feel some blame has to be laid at the coach's door - if you're going to turn up with a half-cooked bowler, there's a question over whether seven batsmen is the right option, well though Raina played in the last innings. But all that didn't stop the atmosphere from being buzzing all day. I'm delighted I was there.

Monday, 25 July 2011

23/07/2011 - Bourne, Surrey

Another game, another loss. My second team is absolutely terrible - indeed, they're famous for being terrible - but this season has been worse than usual. We played on an ok green-top. The odd ball scuttled through very low, but otherwise it was even. There was plenty of grip for the spinners due to the dry soil peeking through the grass.

Batting first, we made 196. It wasn't a bad effort, but the opposition bowled most of their colts and plenty of joke bowlers, so 220-30 would have been more like it. We missed out on too many singles. I scored 22* at the end - again, I'm not timing it when I hit out as well as I should, but it wasn't easy with some extremely slow bowlers and the fielders out on the boundary. And a nearby bonfire being lit just as I went out to bat, leaving me trying to sight the ball out of a smokescreen. A loopy donkey drop plopped onto my toe at one point, and I was surprised to feel pain shooting across my foot. Now my toenail has turned black. Turns out even really slow cricket balls hurt.

So we were pretty confident, but less so when they got to 60-0 in reply, at 7 an over. As one of the opening bowlers I feel I should take some responsibility for this. So, excuses:

- They opened with a combination of good adult and small child, so I had to shorten my run up every other ball which really buggered up my rhythm.
- We had a really terrible wicket keeper which I found off putting.
- Nearly half the runs came off me in misfields. We are absolutely terrible in the field.
- We had a really old and worn ball, which meant I had to bowl cutters. Some of them gripped and went miles, too far for the batsman to nick. But I had less control over them than if I'd been sending it seam up.


- I bowled like shit.

We managed to work our way through their order, and I came back with 6 overs to go. We had one of those horrible situations - 5 wickets left, about 30 or so for them to win, with a draw another possibility. We had to try to win it. I figured the best way to do it was to bowl floaty spin and get them playing their shots. Which it did. And it got me two wickets. The trouble was, I also went for a few, and so did the guy at the other end. We were left needing three wickets, and them needing 12 to win off the last two. Suddenly, somehow, they'd ended up favourites. My over went for six in byes and whatnot, and they won in the last one.

We'd gambled; we'd lost. If I'd bowled seam up I think the draw would have been the most likely result, but we were desperate to win, and gave runs away in our efforts to do so.  There were plenty more culpable players - catches went down, the captaincy was questionable and misfields occurred left right and centre - but at the same time I felt pretty crushed. I guess if I'm right to feel down about my performance it needs to be the bowling in my first spell, not the second. We just don't know how to win.

The difference between my two teams is enormous. In terms of talent there's not such a massive difference - a few class players apart - but in all the minutiae of quick singles, tight fielding and tactics there's a gulf of epic proportions. When I was batting at the non-striker's end it got whacked to long leg, and thinking it was a certain four we stopped running, missing out on at least two and maybe three runs. That would probably have got us the draw. Cricket is a game of minutiae.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Yesterday was the best Test Cricket I've ever seen

Actually that's bollocks. But it was bloody, bloody good. Here are two things I enjoyed:

1. Kevin Peter Pietersen: As someone on the Guardian pointed out, this probably gives us a good idea of the batsman he's going to be in the second part of his career. It was a schizophrenic innings - the last 50 took 25 balls; the first 100 was his slowest ever. The dual between him and Kumar was fascinating stuff. He had elected to get as far outside off stump as he possibly could, hoping to remove LBW from the equation. From this position he could work the ball to leg whenever he didn't have to reach for it. Only three balls went through the off side. Kumar could see this and was trying to mix up the away swingers outside off with the occasional leg stump yorker that could nip behind his pads. This was proper Test cricket - Pietersen's technique against Kumar's skill. Other batsmen adopted more conventional approaches - and while Trott and Bell looked good, they both got out in conventional ways. KP deserves credit for his enterprising approach to the problems he posed.

As Vaughan and Boycs had pointed out, the problem on Thursday evening was that Kevin wasn't perfectly balanced as the ball was being sent down. On Friday there was slightly less swing, and the balance looked largely perfect. He got himself across and began to play with more of the bat through mid-on, rather than mid-wicket. Once he'd got to 150, his tactics changed entirely - this was the Kevin of 2005, the wonderful leg-side thumper with an uncanny sixth sense as to the whereabouts of gaps. This is the batsman who clears the bars, who always gives you your money's worth. I've watched him live in full flow and the brutality, against people bowling really fast, is stunning. Yes, there was no Zaheer. No, Sharma and Harbhajan weren't on their games. It was still breathtaking stuff.

2. Praveen Kumar: Many people commented on how the attritional nature of the opening exchanges gave the game something of an old-school vibe. Kumar's performance had something of the old-school medium pacers we've barely seen other than Asif. Terry Alderman and Alec Bedser have both been mentioned - certainly after the 40-over spell the latter comes to mind - this was proper unstinting medium pace trundling.

Actually the bowler he most reminds me of is Edward Simon Hunter Giddens, another swing genius who'd managed to master the tiny alterations in seam position required to swing it both ways with no change in action. Both had a supple, wristy flick in their delivery. Giddens did brilliantly on debut in 2000, but was dropped later in the summer, a touch unfairly I thought. I suppose that, like Kumar, the general feeling was that without a new ball, helpful conditions or both, he'd be cannon fodder. I actually think Kumar has more about him than that - I thought the same of Giddens.

It's a really, really hard art. As a left armer I can swing it in quite easily, but when I try to bowl the ball that comes out counter to a side on action - away swinger - it's much tougher. I can get the seam going down in the right place, but I lose all pace and control. How ironic that Duncan Fletcher, he formerly of the 90mph or nothing school, is his coach. Yesterday was all about technique and artistry. If those big names get going, we might have another day of it today. The only blemish was the catch at leg gully, which the third umpire denied. Confused by the Indians' lack of willing to use Hawkeye and yet use this - the most flawed bit of technology there is.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A theory of good fast bowling

Here are some things which really good bowlers have:

a) Express pace. 90mph plus.

b) Bounce. Lots of bounce.

c) Ridiculous levels of accuracy

d) Huge amounts of late swing or exaggerated tendency to move it off the seam.

e) Separate category. Be left handed, over 80mph, and have an in-swinger. e.g. Vaas, Khan, Sidebottom for a time.

The very best pace bowlers, who average close to 25, have at least two of the four.  Allow me:

Pollock, McGrath, Garner, Ambrose = b + c (and sometimes a in the West Indians' case).
Lillee, Younis, Akram, Marshall, Steyn = a + d (and usually c).
Hadlee (later period), Asif, Stuart Clark= c + d
Odd rare category of express pace and huge bounce - Harmison (when he could get it vaguely straight), Mohammad Zahid  = a + b.

So accuracy is basically a constant. Mohammad Sami is a classic second tier bowler - pace and swing, but no direction. Had Lee been more accurate in the first half of his career, his record would be way better.

England don't have anyone who meets all the criteria. They all pass on b) with the exception of Anderson who passes on d).Tremlett comes closest to passing on c), but not enough yet. Bresnan doesn't pass on any of the criteria, but he's decent on all the counts.

There it is.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

15/07/2011 - Wormsley


Ok, so there's not much to be said about the ground that hasn't been said before, except now I can add: I GOT TO PLAY AT WORMSLEY. Here are all the snaps. CC's mate had managed to blag five of us from my team into a six-a-side tournament for the Lord's Taverners. The only downside was that we were forced to represent a Giant Vampire Squid (actual name redacted due to fear of lawyers/hitmen), despite the fact that only he works for it. So every time we did something good the commentator (oh yes), said 'that's great play from the Giant Vampire Squid.' And at one point he apologetically added: 'The Giant Vampire Squid invests a lot in inner-city cricket: not a lot of people know that.' Maybe he'd just seen someone leaving a turd in one of our kit bags and felt sorry for us.

All to play for then. And between us and the trophy, the small matter of five other teams, each with an ex-pro. We had our own, and it's fair to say we drew the long straw - not only had he played a Test and some ODIs, but unlike all the others he was still playing for his county. And as the day went on he proved to be a class act: self-deprecating, funny and above all really bloody good at cricket. Over lunch he told us who he hated bowling at the most (here's a shock: Hayden) and hated facing (Akhtar and Lee, would you believe).

Didn't go so well in the first game though. The bowling was fine (we only had an over each) though my last two balls went for four (a Chinese cut and byes) which lead to the commentator, who I think was already tanked up by this stage, describing CC's over as 'expensive', and plenty of spluttering from yours truly. So I was keen to make up for it with the bat.

Our pro went for a golden duck, his middle stump pegged back by son of a famous England player. I was next out, and reassured my team mates: 'don't worry, he's a tail ender anyway.' Turns out I might have been a bit over-confident, what with said pro the proud owner of 4,000 first class runs, which as it happens is 4,000 more than I have. My middle stump went back 10 yards, first ball. I think it's my second-ever Golden Duck, but it might actually be my first. The guy generated pretty whippy pace off a four-pace run up, and I just wasn't expecting it. He'd done me so comprehensively that I thought I'd got a grubber. Later learned I was just stuck on the crease. Fortunately our number 5 saw off the hat-trick ball and we got to the last ball of the game with 3 to win, 2 to tie. He hit it for six. Some things we deduced about our number 5 from this:

- He has balls slightly bigger than Jupiter, and made of adamantium.
- We probably owe him a drink some time.

Sat out the next game, which we played against a much weaker team and won pretty easily. They had some crap spinners, and our pro hit them miles. It wasn't the only mismatch of the day - in another game a former England player made a batsman look so stupid that he turned around, knocked his stumps over, and stropped off. Another batsman tried the same trick in another game, and the umpire rather amusingly called dead ball, so he had to carry on playing and missing. In another game a very slow bowler sent down a full toss to a former England player who'd been renowned In his day as a big hitter, and the next thing we knew it had travelled over 100 metres into a neighbouring field.

So we were in the final, against a team who'd looked very good. We got off to an iffy start - the oppo had some midget from Western Australia who bowled far quicker than someone that height should, and he tied down our openers, the pressure forcing a run out and a bowled. To quote Rain Men on short bowlers: Napoleon invaded Europe. This put our pro in, and he immediately started winding him up. I'm thinking this was good professional tactics - get him rattled, make him lose his rhythm - but I wasn't particularly thankful when I went out to face a furious Aussie shortarse on a king pair. Luckily the first ball pinged out the middle through cover, and I was off.

It was a tricky situation - two wickets left, so I couldn't really afford to get out for three or so overs, but we had to go at ten an over for a par score. I didn't time it very well at all - actually that's an understatement - but I kept going at a run a ball, which gave our pro plenty of strike, and he seemed to hit pretty much everything for six, four or two. I ended up about 20 not out, and we'd set 80 off 8 overs, probably par. If I'd timed a few more and we'd had a better start I think we could have got to 100, which would have been a tough ask, but 80 was something to bowl at.

Sadly, the other team were much too good. I guess most of us at our best are league second team players who wouldn't disgrace themselves in the firsts, whereas they had some proper first team players. My over -the second - was fine - with four fielders to play with I figured the best bet was to go three on the off side boundary and one on the leg, and bowl full outside off. Doubt I'd have got away with another one like that though. They really showed their class later on in the innings, and won with an over to spare. With a few more runs we might have pushed them harder, but I reckon even 20 more might not have been enough, and anyway, our pro had done most of the work for us.

No disappointment: ultimately it was a FUCKING BRILLIANT day. In fact, I'm going to throw this out there - the best day's cricket I've ever had. Huge thanks for the invite, well done to everyone on our team, and my God I hope to do it again some day.

Monday, 11 July 2011

10/07/11 - Hutton, Essex

A terrific game. I was captain for the day. By mutual agreement with the oppo skipper we bowled first, and started terribly. I was completely hungover again, and bowled like an absolute drain. Turns out being hungover really impedes the bowling too: I kept dropping short all the time. You really need to be bowling a decent amount if you want to be accurate - back in the day I bowled about 20 overs in a weekend and I reckon you need to do at least half that, and some in the middle of the week, if you want to avoid giving a four ball every over.

Fortunately our second string bowled absolutely brilliantly, and we managed to restrict them. Would like to take some credit for the field placings - we caught pretty much everything, in some part due to my making sure the three people who could catch were standing in the right place.

Our reply started really well. At 40-0 we fancied our chances. But one of our openers went to a bad bit of luck, (a slightly too-soft-handed defensive shot saw the ball dribble onto the stumps), while the guy hitting all the runs went LBW. Numbers three and four were lesser players whom I'd bumped up the order so that they could get a go, and neither of them contributed much.

I then came in and cruised to 15, before some absolutely horrible luck. I went for a cover drive to a full, slow ball, and slightly misjudged the length, the ball hitting the toe of my bat. Normally that wouldn't be a problem - you certainly wouldn't expect it to somehow dribble back onto the stumps. Never been out like that before, probably never will again. Odd thing, batting - it was totally my fault for not timing the shot a fraction better, but it felt like I'd been totally robbed.

We scrapped our way towards the total, but with three overs to go our last pair were at the crease, with 11 to win. One was a batsman I'd stuck down the order to fight fires in case we were 40-8 (we usually are), the other a bona fide number 11. The bowling was good - fast and straight - and the batsman I'd put down the order ended up having to see out the final over.

It was a thrilling ending. to a great game, played in fantastic spirit against a lovely bunch of blokes. Hutton is a proper club (they field five teams), and this was very much an occasional Sunday side, but they still dug out some good players for us. The wicket was excellent, with something for the bowlers but not too much, and even though I contributed absolutely nothing of any value I really enjoyed it. I guess the fact it was such a close game made it better. It's relatively rare you get a close game played in good spirits too - often it's either one or the other. Really want to play there next year.

09/7/11 - Hampstead Heath Extension

Ah rats' cocks. The pitch, by council standards, was just about ok (again the rain had taken a lot of sting out of it). The bowling was mostly terrible. Three batsmen had already made 50 and retired (thank Christ, otherwise there'd have been carnage). I'd got to about 30 at a run a ball with no trouble whatsoever, but with 9 overs to go and only one wicket down I figured I had to hit out. I tried for four overs, and barely connected once, other than the occasional edge past the stumps. I scored much slower than if I'd just batted normally, and ended up with 38. Not a disaster, but a 50 would have been nice.

Earlier in the season I'd made 46 off 25 balls, so I know I can do this sort of thing...what went wrong? Really dunno. The pitch wasn't the easiest for full-on slogging - we'd scored quickly off the many bad balls, not by hitting through the line - and everyone else's attempts down the order at smacking it came to nothing. I guess the earlier innings was based on proper shots, whereas in that situation I was just trying to hoon the lot for six. It was probably the right thing to do, I just wasn't quite good enough. I got caught up on reverse hitting the spinner into the big space behind square on the off side, when actually using my feet to him might have been the more sensible choice. I was either thinking about the shot  - which put me off the shot I was playing - or trying to play the shot, and missing.

Worse was to come in the field - two dropped chances, to go with one in the last game. One was a slip chance down by my ankles which I just wasn't ready for, and then an absolute shocker at deep midwicket. The problem's simple: hard hands. The solution: I have no idea. Chuck me the ball in training and I'm usually ok - not great, but I can hold the simple ones. Still, good fun, though our team really need to get some new oppositions....we've improved beyond recognition in the course of a couple of years. We still know how to take a photo though....

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Bowling of the day: Sree Santh vs South Africa

Ok so I'll be honest: I hate this twat. Never mind Harbhajan, I'd like to give him a slap, and I don't have to spend all day with him. He's petulant, arrogant, a bad sportsman and a whinnying bitch who goes to pieces the minute any batsman gets on top of him and I hate his guts.

But on the other hand, just look at that seam position.

RIP The News of the World

I should declare a certain vested interest. I had two run-ins with the paper during the early part of my career. First, I applied for a graduate trainee position there. Fuck knows what I was doing. The interviewer - a thoroughly pleasant bloke of old-school ink-stained fingers and morbid obesity stock - was quite high up at the time the hacking was going on, and for all I know he'll be doing time in chokey by the time I've churned this out. He turned me down, but was lovely about it, and said I'd go far. Possibly not the last lapse of judgement he ever had.

Then later, in about 2007, I was approached by the NoTW regarding a story I was researching. The deal they put on the table was pretty simple: betray all, or some, of your contacts, possibly leave them facing prosecution, and in return you'll get a front page, £20,000 and some shifts. You don't want to be a poverty striken freelancer all your life, right? You want to work for the BEST paper in Britain, right?

I did contemplate their offer, and I came up with an answer: stick it up your arse. Well, that's not quite accurate, I blustered about how generous the offer was, and about how I feared the repercussions and...I'd actually barely got the excuse out of my mouth when I was ushered out of the room. They were already thinking about the next story.

So let's be quite clear: I hated the NoTW. Absolutely fucking hated everything it stood for. I once spoke to Tom Newton Dunn, former hack, now Sun Supremo and King of the Sentient World, on the phone, and I asked him if he thought what his paper produced was detrimental to society. His response was that I was taking 'an incredibly patronising attitude.' 

'We're only giving the public what they want.' If it's tits and football they want, who are we to stop them having it? Just because your values don't correlate with theirs, why should we feel guilty about what we produce?

And my response is pretty simple: because you fucking should, you disingenuous cunt. You, XXXXX, schooled at public school, Oxford and City University London, who have had access to art, culture, nuanced political thought - you have a moral imperative not to use those benefits - none of which, let's be honest, have been in any way earned - churning out reams of vacuous shite. Make something better than that. Make something constructive. If it's a tiny blog about cricket with a readership of about three, sporadic freelance features in little-read magazines and a critically-well-received book which won't make back its advance until about 2075 and certainly won't advance your own career in any way whatsoever then I'm afraid that's the way the cookie crumbles.

So yup, to quote Richard Peppiatt's rather majestic letter to Richard Desmond: 'You may have heard the phrase, "The flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil sets off a tornado in Texas." Well, try this: "The lies of a newspaper in London can get a bloke's head caved in down an alley in Bradford."' I was living in Portsmouth when Rebekah Wade set the population of Paulsgrove firebombing paediatricians' houses and all the rest of it, so I knew from a relatively early age about the long-range impact of tabloid journalism, of stories designed to appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect.

Because that's the crushing irony which a lot of people seem to have missed here. This became a story largely because of the Milly Dowler/7/7 victims/army relatives angle. As the world and his dog have said - it's nauseating. But - and this is undoubtedly rather callous-sounding - why is that so much worse that celebrities' or politicians' phones? Because they're 'ordinary' people? Please. As if someone who acts or gets their tits out in front of Mahiki is somehow elevated to the level of emotionally invulnerable ubermensch. 

No, what really got the public upset was the heightened emotional resonance that such names and cases carry. That charge gives rise to the utterly reasonable but still incredibly strongly-felt demand that such people be treated with respect and decency. And where does this emotional resonance come from in the first instance?

Right first time. The very tabloid values that the News of the World, in no small part, did its utmost to create. And the other irony: that very defence of only giving the public what it wants - essentially the free market argument - well, you can't then be too upset when a ruthlessly commercial decision (and that's what the closure is, above all) leaves you out of a job.

Very interesting, CC. You don't like tabs. What the hell has all this got to do with cricket?

Well, it brings me to this. Thing is, it's possibly the most important cricket exclusive ever written, and certainly in the last 20 years. It was a story that so many of us knew about, but Cronje apart, never thought would see the light of day. We'd heard all the murmurings for years, but finally, here it was, brought out into sharp relief. That image of a foot, a foot past the white line. Everything we'd allowed to go wrong in our game, captured right there. Was it motivated entirely by commercial interests? Clearly. Was there a slightly uncomfortable. whiff of entrapment in the methods deployed? Possibly. Were the repercussions, on a purely cricketing level, tragic? Of course. I'd give my left bollock to see Aamer steaming in next week. But was it ultimately a good thing? Without question.

When Blair described the newspapers as 'feral beasts' he was closer to the truth than he knew. Rabid dogs or headless chickens would be nearer the mark - wheeling around, knowing everything and nothing, chancing their arms left right and centre, constantly overstepping the line - and sometimes, just sometimes - they hit the mark. We have a remarkably free and diverse press, and this is the price we pay. On Twitter the feeling seems to be that good has triumphed over evil. For me, it's hardly surprising that one feral beast has finally torn another to shreds.

So yes, I'm sad tonight. I'm particularly sad for the journalists who, it appears, lost their jobs. So no hard feelings to those guys who shunted me out of their boardroom four years ago. Just an honest, heartfelt thanks for your little contribution to our game.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Kneejerk Reactions

So, one day on from my post and a crushing ten wicket win, do I feel a bit silly? Well, no, not really. I actually think all the points I made stand.

What England did today was perform well on a wicket that plays to their strength: high quality seam bowling in helpful conditions. Give any of our bowlers a fruity wicket and they'll perform for you. There's little mystery about most of their methods (though Dernbach's slower one is a joy), but they are as liable to do the job on a green top as Malinga is when he's bowling the last over and the oppo need ten to win.

'twas ever thus. Even in the 90s when we were properly shit, our home record wasn't *that* bad, because we could take 20 wickets when it swung and other countries' seamers usually bowled a foot too short. Cricket is fundamentally a cultural game. That's why I love playing in London. Bowl a quick short ball on a bouncy wicket to an Indian batsman and he probably won't play it that well. Play against a South African and the chances are he's not a brilliant mystery spinner. Play a Pakistani and he might well sprint in from the boundary and try to break your toes with a yorker.

What about the batting? Well I actually stand by all the points I made. With the pressure off Cook and the pressure on the Sri Lankan bowling, he got a lot more bad balls to hit and he dispatched them at such a rate that he thoroughly outscored Kieswetter. The problems haven't gone away, but as long as we play on pitches like this, they'll be forgotten until we go on tour.

The lesson is simple: play to your strengths. Swann was calling for more helpful wickets for the seamers this week, and he's the team's spinner (admittedly it's probably easier to make such calls when you're ranked number one in the world, but anyway). The really great teams, of course, find ways of performing when conditions don't suit them. I think you have to be a special player - like McGrath or Warne - to do that consistently at this level. England's players are good, but not special. On a spicy wicket, this line up makes a lot of sense. It doesn't when length bowling goes the distance and you're expected to make 300+

The other issue is one that seems to have been discussed since he came into the team: what sort of bowler is Stuart Broad? A nasty quick or a line and length merchant? My feeling is that he should aim for the latter. Try to  bowl 90mph+ at all times in short spells. After all, he's the only bowler we have who can really do that.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

My other hero

I was thinking of doing a fuller post, but then I realised that this video and his own words do the job much better than I could.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Run rate: a thesis by CC, aged 29 1/2

Disclosure: This is a long, complicated and quite possibly confused post. Feel free to disagree: I'm not sure I agree with all of it. 

Introduction: Objective: To understand why England suck so much ass, using as empirical research the amount of ass that CC sucks when he plays.

1.1. England suck ass

So, England's 50-over ODI side has been giving rise to quite a bit of chatter. The problem seems relatively simple. Alastair Cook has been appointed captain - despite not having been in the team for the World Cup. Many felt, before he was appointed, that he was too pedestrian a player for one day cricket. In the last match he made a compelling case in opposition: a century at just under a run a ball; the kind of knock that allows other people to play their shots around him.

Ah, except there's a problem. The man at number three is Jonathan Trott, who has recently been the player performing that anchor role - batting through the innings at around four an over and then looking to accelerate right at the end. He's done it very well, so he can't be dropped. Now, there are all sorts of conflicting scenarios and schools of thought here. Let's run through some of them:

1) England are in the strange position of hoping that their numbers one and three don't bat together for any great length of time.

2) Following that train of thought - if one of Cook or Trott get out, then the batting line up looks good because you then have an anchor holding the innings together and strokemakers blazing away at the other end.

3) But in the modern era, do we actually want an anchor at all? Some say that the middle order have thrown their wickets away precisely because Trott is making a hundred at the other end. Now Cook's presence has made it worse. If you look at India or Sri Lanka, they do have anchors in the form of Tendulkar and Jayawardene, but they are such classy stroke makers that they can accelerate in a way Trott and Cook can't - brilliant Test players though they are.

4) The opposite school of thought is that you do need an anchor and having two of them is not a problem as long as they understand when the time comes to abandon their role and hit out or get out. 50 overs is a long time to bat. They've received criticism but it's only because Pietersen, Bell and (of late) Morgan have failed to make big scores.

So which of the above is right? In my view, the answer is simple: all of them. It depends on how well they play and how well the bowlers they're facing bowl. A cop out, yes. But bear with me.

This is going to segue into a discussion about me, so apologies. But it has a bearing on the Cook/Trott problem.

1.2. It's all about CC, baby

If I'm opening the innings - assuming there isn't a terrifying run rate requirement - my game plan is simple: leave or block the good ones, hit the bad ones. Usually that means I'm quite stodgy. But there have been times I've gone out and have been going at 8 or 9 an over from the start. There have been many more times I've gone at four or five, and there have also been times I've been going at one or two. The difference is simple - either I've had a greater or lesser number of bad balls to hit, or I've missed out on or capitalised on more or fewer of my scoring opportunities. Regardless of how well I've done it over the years, it's well accepted that block good/hit bad is the right plan for a top order batsman.

As a youth cricketer,  I was a number six or seven. Again, I had a simple game plan - try to hit everything, unless it was absolutely on a perfect line or length or seemed to be doing something that made hitting it too risky. Obviously, I got out a lot more - but I also scored at a quicker rate. This was assuming I came in with runs on the board and the field spread. If I came in and we were up against it, I tried to play as I would were I opening.

Cricket, while comprising the performances of individuals, is a team game. You need solidity at the top of the order against the new ball, and you need acceleration later on. That way you can preserve the wickets at the top, thereby ensuring you bat as many overs as possible, and also maximise the run scoring at the bottom. At any kind of decent level averages and performances are somewhat divorced in the one day game. Yes, Trott might average about 30 more than the number 7, but that doesn't make him twice as useful in terms of the game situation. If the guys down the bottom don't hit out, there's no point the guys at the top trying to bat time. You keep wickets in hand because you expect to lose them at a faster rate. So both of these roles are pretty standard for a batting line up. And I'll get on to this later - they're also deceptively similar.

Now a couple of years ago I was struggling for form, so our skipper moved me down the order, to number five. Neither of us could have realised at the time, but it was the worst possible thing he could have done. To my mind, numbers four and five have the toughest jobs in the limited overs game. These players are there to increase the scoring rate, without getting out. It's something that I think requires a natural stroke maker: someone who blocks the good balls but whose mindset is focussed on scoring wherever possible. Slightly less attacking than the role I played at six, considerably more so than the one I played in the top order. It's someone whose natural game is to go at five or six an over. I'm not sure it's something that can be learned.

Certainly I never mastered it. Time and again I found myself in this situation: blocking the first four balls of an over because they were on target, and then pre-meditating a slog because I felt it was my duty to pick up the run rate. The trouble is that pre-meditating attacking shots to good line and length balls is pretty much the best way to lose your wicket in a hurry.

What I should have done, and I know too late now - is not deviate from one of the two batting game plans: either top order Strategy A) block the good ones and hit the bad ones or lower order Strategy B) - if it's possibly there for a shot, hit it. What both strategies have in common is this: you don't try to hit a good ball for four. Technically they are the same: all that's changed is the attitude. A really good player wouldn't differ. Unless he's Chris Gayle or Virender Sehwag - if he gets six perfect balls, especially on the wickets we play on, he plays out six dots. He's just more likely than me to hit the one that's slightly off line or length for four.

Those two game plans, you see, are the only two that work in the long term. I've seen all sorts of mismatches over the years - former professional players clubbing village attacks around - and however easy they're finding it, even the very best players don't deviate from either of those two strategies. They are really two sides of the same coin - one aggressive, one defensive. It's the lack of willing to hit a perfectly pitched delivery that unites them. The only time you start trying to whack ones on off stump through midwicket or wallop good length ones over the bowler's head is at the end of the innings, and even then there's a good case for defending anything on a perfect line and length.

2.1. Strategy Oh Bollocks)

These two strategies differ entirely from the 'block, block, block, shit, time to hit something' - which I'll call 'Strategy Oh Bollocks)', because that's what you usually say shortly after adopting it. It's a quick road to failure, as I learned to my cost.

Back to England. Very broadly - Cook and Trott belong in the top order Strategy A) camp. Kieswetter, Pietersen and Morgan belong in the middle/lower Strategy B) camp. Of course it's more complicated than that. It takes all of them time to play themselves in. Morgan's definition of a ball that might be there to be hit for four is very different to, say Kieswetter's, which is in turn different to Pietersen's. But they share one of two mindsets, both of which are a very natural state. Now I can pick out two problems here:

1. I haven't mentioned Ian Bell. He is naturally in the Strategy A) camp. It's why he's such a good batsman in Tests. But at Number 6 and deeply aware of the run rate requirement, he's increasingly finding himself in the Strategy Oh Bollocks) camp.

2. Of the scenarios I mentioned above, I think the third holds more weight than the others. There's a 'piston' problem in the scoring rates, e.g: Cook and Pietersen are at the crease together. The bowlers are either bowling particularly accurately, or Cook is missing his scoring opportunities and scoring at three an over rather than five. Pietersen's definition of a ball that is there to be hit is increasingly coloured by his awareness of the run rate. He finds himself in the Strategy Oh Bollocks) camp. Or if Pietersen isn't scoring at his usual rate, it's unlikely Cook can step on the gas to compensate, leading to the same problem.

What's the answer to this, then? How do you tell a batsman who naturally plays the ball on its merits that we need to score at six an over without him adopting Strategy Oh Bollocks)? What further complicates this is the tactics for the Powerplay - here we see countless teams, not least England, losing wickets because it absolutely encourages Strategy Oh Bollocks).

2.2. In conclusion

I think the answer is as follows: if you bat for 50 overs and score at 5 an over, you will make 250. That is always defendable, at least. If you score at 5 an over for 40 overs, you have 200. That leaves you 10 overs. If you have a few wickets in hand, 50 is a doddle, but 10 an over from there is not out of the question, giving you the magic 300. So instead of aiming for 300, aim for 100 off 20 and if you don't get there, 200 off 40 as first ports of call.

Look at it that way and suddenly the presence of Trott and Cook doesn't seem such a problem. Even if they batted together for 40 overs and didn't quite get you to 200, there'd be so many wickets in hand that an almighty slog at the end would be more than feasible. And that's without doing anything special in the Powerplays - four an over should be attainable without taking any risks, and though that's hardly explosive, it's certainly better than losing three wickets minimum, which is our usual effort.

I don't think it's beyond this batting line up to make that without losing too many wickets - but I think the problem has been that they've been looking too much towards the finished total, scored at a run a ball. Personally, I would bring in Bopara for Bell, because he has a bit more of the slogger about him and his bowling is useful. But I do think having Cook and Trott in the top order can work. What it really needs is more consistent performances from Kieswetter, who when he does make runs, rarely makes them at anything under 6 an over - that's his natural rate. In the debates about Cook and Trott, the key role of his batting has been forgotten.

Mind you, this is a completely pointless debate. Because we've long picked the wrong team. That's another post, I guess.